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April 7, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 373

'The Guns Of August' In The Middle East?

April 7, 2022 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 373

There was a time, many decades ago, when ruling elites in the Middle East, I am referring here principally to the Arab world, did not quite understand the United States. Almost 40 years ago, when I first set foot in the region as a young diplomat, you could see the curiosity and the illusions. But that has not been true for a very long time. Now when video appears on Twitter of President Biden seemingly wandering around aimlessly and confused at a White House event, Arabic-speaking elites not only see it but have their own hot takes about it.

This sense of "knowing what America is up to and it is not anything good" deeply informs policy formulation by Arab states and Israel over the past few months. The simplistic hope that the new American Administration "will be like Obama but maybe slightly better" has been replaced by "like Obama but even worse." The mindset that saw America like a distracted but usually benevolent hegemon has been replaced by one angry and dismayed that sees America as actually hostile to many Arab states. This is principally due, of course, to fears of a renewed nuclear deal by the United States with Iran, one that may benefit the United States but will certainly benefit and empower Iran (and by extension, Russia). The "losers" would be the Arab states (particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Israel, and even Turkey. While Turkey helped Iran evade sanctions and make money, it also competes against Iran in other fields.

Much of the recent diplomatic and political activity in the region can be seen within the context of preparing for a worst-case scenario of a more intense confrontation with Iran escalating into open regional warfare in the near future:

One part of the motivation for the Abraham Accords is due to concerns about Iranian aggression, certainly on the part of Gulf states involved in these agreements.

The attempt to rehabilitate brutal Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his regime is about trying to pry him, as much as possible, from the Iranian grip. Probably a lost cause, but an effort seen by Arab states as worthwhile.

The (relative) openness by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel to mend fences with the only recently adversarial Turkish President Erdoğan, now that he has major economic challenges, can also be seen as part of an effort to lineup potential allies or to at least close ranks among regional Sunni Muslims facing the Iranian threat.

Efforts to reach out to the Iraqi leadership, particularly Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, also make sense as part of a larger effort to firm up Arab ranks as much as possible ahead of a confrontation with Iran. Unfortunately, Al-Kadhimi has limited sway over Iran's own militias and numerous agents embedded inside the Iraqi bureaucracy.

Outreach to Russia and China, both partners of Iran and also partial substitutes for an America that cannot fully be trusted, can be seen as part of the same preparation. An Iran with ballistic missiles and drones and possibly even a nuclear bomb will have to be confronted in a like manner and both Moscow and Beijing could be helpful to Arab states in this regard.

Even the support of certain Arab states for the odious military dictatorship in distant Sudan has a potential Iran dimension. Sudanese troops have fought in wars in both Yemen and Libya and could be used elsewhere if Sudan's generals are paid. Arab states may also remember when a bankrupt, desperate Sudanese regime under Omar Al-Bashir actually had security ties with Iran, at the expense of the Arabs, not so long ago.

There is, over the region as a whole, more than a whiff of August 1914 when much of Europe was tied up into interlocking alliances causing a confrontation in the Balkans to become a full-fledged continental war. As Arab states and Israel seek to lock in alliances and smooth over past tensions, so has Iran sought to strengthen the offensive power of its allies on the frontlines in Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. The hope now is that, perhaps because of the Ukraine War and Iranian greediness, a new version of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will not actually happen. For an American Administration now obsessed with bringing down Russia, the fact that a new Iranian agreement will reward the Putin regime is, at least publicly, deeply embarrassing given the war hysteria sweeping American elites. Putin's aggression in Ukraine may have inadvertently prevented Iran from gaining an economic windfall. It has certainly delayed an agreement.

But the sense in the region is that, JCPOA-2 or not, the confrontation with an already emboldened Iran is almost inevitable – a more direct confrontation than previously seen in past proxy wars – and America is not to be fully counted as being on the Israeli/Arab side. The result could be something we have not seen in the region before, a sort of "regional world war" involving not just attacks on or by proxies but between various states and players at the same time.

Everyone is hedging their bets, positioning themselves for a conflict whose full parameters they cannot yet fully comprehend. Turkey moves closer to the Sunni Arab states, even burying the Khashoggi case in hopes of a better relationship with Riyadh. Meanwhile, newly minted American "major non-NATO ally" Qatar, ever the contrarian, moves closer to Iran, hosting the head of the IRGC Navy in a move that the Biden State Department called "deeply disappointing." Other Arab states have had their own disappointments after the United States refused to reconsider returning the Yemeni Houthis to an American terrorism list in the wake of Houthi attacks on civilian targets in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. By these actions, Iran showed its ability to wage destabilizing economic warfare on both those states – both of whom are seeking to remake and expand their economies – through the attacks of its proxies. Both Arab states and Israel have expressed concerns about the U.S. lifting sanctions on the IRGC, but this is only one small part of the many possible concessions to Iran envisioned in the nuclear talks in Vienna.

The contending blocs are relatively set. On one side Iran, Hezbollah-ruled Lebanon, Gaza, and Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. The Assad regime is also in this camp but may be too weak to be more than a safe haven for Iranian-led forces. Qatar clearly leans toward this camp but will likely baulk at any actual fighting should the confrontation reach that stage.

Against them are a bloc including Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemeni forces opposed to the Houthis. Possibly Sudan. Turkey is also a possibility but may wait it out to maximize its position (unless its ally Azerbaijan is dragged into a war with Iran). The American role is ambiguous, unlikely to get involved unless directly attacked, with Iran possibly playing the role of forcing the Americans into a war they want to avoid as happened with Japan and Germany in 1941. That would be the supreme irony given that it is in Iran's interest for the Americans to be bystanders.

The plans are laid by both sides. Still an eerie calm reigns so far over Ramadan, the month of great Islamic battles, with Passover and Easter on the horizon. Will open war come sometime this summer after a Ukrainian ceasefire, after an Iranian nuclear agreement, or in lieu of one? This is uncharted territory.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

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